Just before the start of a community gathering early Tuesday morning in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Israeli Consul General David Siegel looked toward a set of giant TV screens to watch Gilad Shalit step out of a helicopter on his journey home to Israel.
“There he is,” Siegel said simply.
The 350 people gathered in the Beverly Hills ballroom erupted in applause as they watched continuing live coverage from Israel of Shalit’s return home after being held captive by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.
It was the emotional highpoint of a community gathering which was organized in just two days by the Consul General’s office in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli Leadership Council.
Rabbis, community leaders, politicians, staff and members of Jewish organizations and others — including many young Israelis— filled the room.
“Today we are one people with one heart,” Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the assembly. Wolpe was one of about a dozen speakers, rabbis and cantors to briefly address the crowd. “We are all responsible for one another,” Wolpe said.
Story continues after the jump.
If the joy was great, it was not without a mix of sadness and concern. Israel exchanged Shalit, an Israel Defense Forces soldier who was promoted to sergeant while in captivity, for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom have committed brutal acts of terror. Some of the released Palestinians had been serving life sentences.
“Why can’t Jews ever be just happy?” said Roz Rothstein, founder and CEO of StandWithUs. “We know there is a price to pay.”
Consul General Siegel told The Jewish Journal that Israel considers Shalit’s freedom worth the considerable price.
“You have to breed confidence in the families of the soldiers that their sons and daughters are going to brought home,” he said. “The reactions of the Arabs doesn’t give us a lot of confidence, but everything in the Middle East is about managing risk. It’s good for the country to wrestle with this moral dilemma.”
That moral dilemma – weighing the obligation to free captives against the threat of future violence—was very much on the minds of the attendees, as it has been at the center of national debate in Israel itself.
“This is a debate that has been going on for 2,000 years,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Cooper said the dictum to free captives, in Hebrew pidyon shvuim, has always been balanced against the obligation to repair the world, or tikkun olam. Freedom, in other words, cannot come at the cost of destruction.
In the ballroom, images of the just-freed Shalit — looking gaunt but smiling, appearing both vulnerable and resilient — at least temporarily obliterated that debate.
“Your head worries, but your heart is happy,” said Jay Sanderson, Jewish Federation president.
A beaming Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said no country other than Israel would pay such a price for a single soldier.
“It is a sign of strength,” Hier said.
In his speech to the gathering, Consul General Siegel expressed gratitude to countries instrumental in Shalit’s release, including Germany and Egypt. The audience gave sustained applause to the Consul General of Germany, who was in attendance.
Among the politicians present were California Assemblyman Mike Feuer, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Controller Wendy Gruel, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and Councilman Dennis Zine.
In his remarks, Yaroslavsky, clearly moved by the images of Shalit on screen, departed from the standrad political speech and led the crowd in the Hebrew prayer for thanksgiving, “Shehechyanu.”